Experts warn of high levels of chemicals in clothes by some fast-fashion retailers

Canadians who purchase cheap fast fashion from online retailers may be exposing themselves to potentially toxic chemicals.

A Marketplace investigation found that out of 38 samples of children’s, adult’s and maternity clothes and accessories, one in five items had elevated levels of chemicals — including lead, PFAS and phthalates — that experts found concerning. 

“People should be shocked,” said Miriam Diamond, an environmental chemist and professor at the University of Toronto. Diamond oversaw the lab testing that Marketplace commissioned. 

  • Watch the full investigation

Lab tests expose toxic chemicals found on new clothes. And how to fight back against overseas fraudsters. 22:30

Scientists found that a jacket for toddlers, purchased from Chinese retailer Shein, contained almost 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada says is safe for children. A red purse, also purchased from Shein, had more than five times the threshold. 

“This is hazardous waste,” said Diamond. 

This jacket, purchased for $23 from Chinese fast-fashion giant Shein, contained almost 20 times the limit of lead Health Canada says is safe in children’s products. (David Abrahams/CBC)

“I’m alarmed because we’re buying what looks cute and fashionable on this incredibly short fashion cycle. What we’re doing today is to look [for] very short-lived enjoyment out of some articles of clothing that cost so much in terms of our … future health and environmental health. That cost is not worth it.”

Shein, which sells products both under its own brand and from third-party suppliers, sent an emailed statement to Marketplace saying it had removed the purse and jacket from its app, and would stop working with relevant suppliers until the issue was resolved. “We are committed to continuous improvement of our supply chain,” the company said.

Marketplace found garments containing elevated levels of chemicals from three fast-fashion retailers: Zaful, AliExpress and Shein. 

These companies boast hundreds to thousands of styles updated daily at rock-bottom prices. Tops are available for under $5, sneakers for under $10. Marketplace purchased a kids raincoat from AliExpress for just $6 US.

Miriam Diamond, a professor at the University of Toronto, oversaw the lab testing Marketplace commissioned to test for PFAS, heavy metals and phthalates in clothing. Here, she’s holding a purse from Shein that contained over five times the amount of lead that Health Canada considers safe in children’s products. (CBC)

Lead can cause damaging health effects to the brain, heart, kidneys and reproductive system. Children and pregnant people are more vulnerable, and infants and children are the most at risk, according to Health Canada’s website.

Lead is a naturally occurring element that can be found throughout the environment, but Joël Mertens, a product environmental impacts expert at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, said the levels found in Marketplace’s lab results were beyond environmental contamination, or the small amounts clothes are exposed to unintentionally during the manufacturing process. 

“There were clearly products that were intentionally using lead and intentionally using it in a way that was well above what should be considered responsible  — or even safe,” he said.

Mertens explained that lead can be used in textile dye pigments, but there are safer alternatives that can achieve the same results.

Diamond pointed to the broader concerns stemming from the industry itself, noting that it’s not just the consumer that could be exposed to the ill effects of lead; it’s the entire supply chain, from mining the lead to shipping the final product. 

“If the final product isn’t safe for me, it’s definitely not safe for the workers that are handling these chemicals to make it,” said Diamond.

Health Canada would not give an interview, but in an emailed statement said it “monitors the marketplace and follows up on all identified consumer product risks.”

Expert: Current regulations on phthalates not strong enough in Canada

Other articles of clothing contained elevated levels of phthalates, a group of chemicals often used to make plastic more flexible. 

A clear tote purchased from Zaful contained enough phthalates, including DEHP, DiNP and DnOP, that Diamond and Mertens suggested Health Canada review the product.

Health Canada restricts some phthalates in children’s toys — like DEHP, DiNP and DnOP — to no more than 1,000 parts per million (ppm) each. However, it is unclear if it would be considered a children’s product. 

Health Canada has proposed to ban DEHP in all products bought and sold in Canada, but it is not yet in effect.  

Diamond said more attention should be paid to all phthalates, many of which are considered endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals that can interfere with hormones. They can also have developmental effects, and target the liver and kidneys, with particular concerns about its effect on people in their reproductive years, she said.

After notifying Zaful of the lab results, the company wrote in a statement that it is recalling the clear tote purse and sending customers who purchased it a refund.

This clear tote purse, purchased from Zaful for $13 US, contained levels of phthalates that concerned experts. (David Abrahams/CBC)

In addition to the tote purse, Diamond flagged elevated levels of phthalates in a children’s tutu dress from Shein, a children’s dress featuring Elsa from the movie Frozen from AliExpress, the red purse purchased from Shein, a children’s raincoat set from AliExpress and a set of plastic bibs from AliExpress. None exceeded Health Canada’s limits.

But Diamond still has concern, particularly with the tendency for children to suck on clothing or put it in their mouths. Children’s skin also can absorb chemicals easier than adults’ skin, she said. 

After informing retailers of Marketplace’s investigation, Shein, Zaful and AliExpress removed all questionable products from their sites. The companies confirmed they would be investigating further, and taking action against suppliers and sellers if necessary.

Health Canada addressed the tote in an emailed statement, writing that the presence of phthalates doesn’t always mean a risk. The regulator suggested that unless a toddler under age four is sucking on the purse for more than three hours on a daily basis, the purse is not a significant source of exposure to phthalates. 

WATCH | Marketplace finds toxic chemicals in some ultra fast-fashion items:

Toxic chemicals found in some Shein, AliExpress and Zaful clothes

A Marketplace investigation found lead, phthalates and ‘forever chemicals’ in purses, jackets and Disney princess dresses. 2:13

Some scientists are calling for stronger regulations on phthalates in Canada. Unlike the European Union, where the combined amount of phthalates is considered in regulations, Canada restricts each phthalate individually. 

“The question naturally arises that combined exposures are possible,” said Eva Pip, a biologist and professor at the University of Winnipeg. “You can’t have more than 1,000 [ppm] of any individual [phthalates] they list, but you could theoretically have 900 [ppm] of each of them together and still be okay.”

In 2021, Health Canada published a document stating that the combined exposure of phthalates to the Canadian environment is “below the levels that are expected to cause death to organisms.” 

Pip thinks this needs to change. “Given the fact that these chemicals are hormone and developmental disruptors, death [to organisms] is a pretty extreme criterion to determine harm,” she said.

Unnecessary forever chemicals found in rain gear

The scientists also tested for PFAS, a collection of fluorinated compounds commonly used in clothing for waterproofing and stain resistance. 

Many PFAS are known to be endocrine disruptors, and all are considered “forever chemicals” because they aren’t flushed from the body and don’t break down in the environment. 

Potential harmful effects include “increasing obesity to impairing immune function to different types of cancers to even diabetes,” Diamond said, noting: “This is a class of chemicals that should not be used unless they’re absolutely essential.” 

A raincoat purchased for $13.21 US from AliExpress contained high levels of PFAS, said Diamond. 

Health Canada prohibits the sale and import of any products containing particular fluorinated compounds, including the type CBC tested for, with the exception of products containing trace amounts of the chemical. However, the regulator doesn’t specify what a trace amount would be.

“This creates a huge loophole,” said Pip. “The manufacturer can claim that presence [of PFAS] in the product is incidental.” 

When reviewing the amount of PFAS found in the AliExpress raincoat, Pip said: “It is hard to imagine this is an incidental amount.”

When CBC brought the lab results to AliExpress, the company removed the raincoat from its online marketplace, confirming that it would be investigating further. 

A pink raincoat, purchased from AliExpress for $13.21 US, contained 220 parts per billion (ng/g) of PFAS, a type of ‘forever chemical’ that Diamond says should not be used in any product unless it is ‘absolutely essential.’ Experts considered this amount to be ‘high.’ (David Abrahams/CBC)

In addition to affecting human health, the chemicals assessed can enter the environment through laundering. A 2019 study from B.C.’s Ocean Wise found that up to 4.3 million microfibres can be shed in just one load of laundry. 

Mertens suggests PFAS are not essential, and there’s suitable alternatives easily available, such as wax for water repellency, or newer, degradable chemical compounds with similar effects.

“This is actually one of the areas that the industry has been focusing on, especially leading players in the industry, is phasing out PFAS compounds for alternatives,” said Mertens. 

Health Canada initially told Marketplace it has “identified concerns with PFAS and actively monitors the evolving science related to these substances.” With the products that concerned experts, the regulator confirmed it will “assess compliance and take immediate action as appropriate.” Ultimately though, the regulator said it is up to companies to provide safe products to Canadians. 

So you still need new clothes. Here’s what to do

Mertens says that while the fashion supply chain is complicated and spans many countries, the onus is on the brands themselves to oversee the process so it eliminates unnecessary chemicals.

“There are many, many organizations and groups out there that can help any brand or manufacturer navigate this space. Nobody really has an excuse to say, ‘Well, I just don’t know how to tackle it,’ including small brands.”

Mertens suggests consumers look for brands that complete product safety compliance through organizations like Oeko-Tex or Bluesign, which set restricted substances limits in each article of clothing based on progressive international regulations, like the EU’s REACH, which sets safe levels of certain chemicals in clothing.

And if you already own the garments? Diamond says some chemicals can wash out of clothes.

However, she adds, “In the long term, you know, I just don’t want to buy it.”

Eleanore Beatty

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